1. Wendy and Michael Williams
Wendy and Michael Williams met in 1995 as patients at the Shriners Hospitals for Children in Tampa. Wendy, who has cerebral palsy and is a wheelchair user, was 19 and was there for physical therapy. Michael, then 18, had come in for rehabilitation after serious surgery for a broken arm. Michael first noticed Wendy sitting at a computer. “He liked my hair and thought I was smart,” she says. “I liked that he was kind, gentle, funny and the fact that I was in a wheelchair didn’t faze him.” Neither of them cared that Wendy is half-Japanese and half-white and that Michael is black. The teens kept in touch after they were discharged and eventually started dating. This year, they’re celebrating their 20th anniversary. They also have 5-year-old twin daughters. Wendy, 43, works in customer service for a supplement company; Michael, 41, is a financial services trainer for a credit union. To the Williamses, their differences were never an issue. “You see the person for who they are on the inside,” says Wendy.
2. Wendy and Alexander Barroso
When she was 23, Peruvian-born Wendy Sabogal, who is now the office manager at St. Jude’s Catholic Church, worked at a Miami fast food restaurant and often spied a handsome customer at the drive-thru window. She told all the other girls who worked at the restaurant to make sure she could hand him his food. “They would have his food waiting and would call me and I would smile and say hello,” she says. One day, the handsome customer, Cuban-born Alexander Barroso, then 28, came inside to complain about a wrong order and ended up talking to Wendy and getting her phone number. Later that day, they talked for four hours and Wendy discovered Alexander had been widowed a year before and had two daughters, a 5-year-old and a 10-month-old. But “it was love at first sight,” says Wendy. Three months later, they were married and eventually moved to Sarasota. That was almost 25 years ago. “It’s been a happy-ever-after story ever since,” says Wendy. “We had two more kids—a boy and a girl—and now have two married daughters and a granddaughter. Our family keeps growing.”
3. Tim and Chelsea Clarkson
For Chelsea van der Mije’s 13th birthday, her mother made a bold gamble. She bought three tickets to a Dixie Chicks concert: one for Chelsea, one for her and one for Tim Clarkson, the boy she knew Chelsea had a severe crush on. But Chelsea’s mother didn’t tell her daughter that Clarkson was coming until they were on their way to the show. What could have been an embarrassed middle school meltdown turned out to be bliss. “My heart exploded,” she says. “There he was, standing in the driveway in a flannel shirt and cowboy boots.” The concert was the start of an intense romance that ended in high school before being rekindled after Chelsea graduated from college. She quickly became pregnant and the couple tied the knot in 2011. Three daughters later, they now run Grove Ladder Farm in east Sarasota, harvesting eggs from a flock of chickens.
4. Emily Fairchild and Michelle Puls
In 2007, Michelle Puls, then 31, signed up to fill a vacant slot in a 12-person team running a 200-mile relay race between Oregon’s Mount Hood and the Pacific Coast and in the process met her future partner. She and Emily Fairchild, then 29, spent 33 hours alternating between running the race and riding in a cramped, dank van, and formed an instant bond. At the time, both lived in Bloomington, Indiana. Before they flew home, Puls asked for Fairchild’s number, and within a year they were making plans to move to Sarasota together. Today, Fairchild teaches gender studies at New College of Florida, while Puls works as an administrator at State College of Florida. “We’ve been running ever since,” says Fairchild.
5. Frank Galati and Peter Amster
Frequent Asolo Rep directors Frank Galati, 75, and Peter Amster, 69, remember the exact date they connected during their stints at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois: Nov. 19, 1970. Frank was a graduate teaching assistant; Peter was a senior in one of his classes. Frank invited the class to attend a performance of a piece he had adapted for stage, and Peter showed up. “We talked during intermission,” Frank recalls, “and after the show, since I didn’t have a car, he drove me home.” There was, he says, “an instant, intense affection; it was a magnetic encounter, but intellectual, too.” Frank admits that at the time, there was a level of anxiety about being a gay couple, but there was acceptance, too, from friends, family and colleagues. And, 47 years later, an embrace, too, from the government employee who married them on Nov. 1, 2017, in the historic Sarasota County courtroom. “She said, ‘I’m so lucky to get to perform this ceremony,’” Frank says. “And I was so glad to speak the traditional vows, so moved to say those words.” Their relationship, he adds, “has been the blessing of my life.”